How I went from reading 2 books a year to 20 books in 2020

What I wish I knew when I was younger.

An old classic

I didn't use to be a big a reader, and I am definitely not a fast reader, but last year I ended up reading 20 books in 6 months, which is around 10 times more than I have managed in recent years. I remember reading plenty of books as a childm, but reading books as an adult is something I have struggled with, and so I thought I would share my process in the hope that others might find it useful.

Books I read generally fall under one of the following two categories.

In the first category, I massively get into the book, read it at the expense of sleep and social interactions, and finish it within a few days. Books such as "the Watchmaker of Filigree Street", "Boys in the Boat", and most Harry Potter books fall in this category.

In the second category, I struggle to get into the book. For example because the subject matter requires some attention or does not match my mood all the time. In those cases the book can take months to finish. Books such as “Surely, you are joking Mr. Feynman” or “Blackbox Thinking” are two which immediately come to mind.

Picking up books from category two, alongside my refusal to start a new book when I have an unfinished one, means that I could go for months reading (or not reading) one book.

What changed in 2020?

A couple of articles I read recently suggest that this year, because of Covid and lockdown, people have bought (and I assume read) more books than recent years. Which made me ponder, 'was the lockdown why I have started reading more?'

The lockdown probably did not hurt my chances, but I believe it was actually thanks to something Naval Ravikant said on a podcast I was listening to back in early summer. I remember it clearly; I was driving past Box Hill in Surrey at the time. He said at any point in time, he is in generally reading several books (I think he said something like 20).

Thinking more about it in the next few weeks, it actually made a lot of sense. We don’t watch the same TV shows all the time, we don’t listen to the same music genre everyday (or I don't), or discuss the same topics day in day out, why should we limit ourselves in our reading to the same book, persevering just to get it finished?

Slowly I started picking more and more random books to read. Bored of the book I was just reading? Fine, pick another. Bored of this one? No worries, let’s switch.

Soon I found myself reading 5 or 6 books at a time. Continuing with this method, I manage to get through around 20 books in 6 months.

What have I not done instead?

As I started enjoying reading more, I found I was getting distracted by my phone. So I switched off notifications on my phone and they have been off in the past few months. This I think is another change that has helped me read more and get distracted less.

So generally I am spending less time on my phone, reading the news or random website. This may come at a cost long-term of not being aware of what's happening in the world, but so far so good. I am also spending less time on Youtube, Netflix, and so on. So my evenings are spent reading rather than watching something random.

Finally, I am exercising less - I have probably gone down from exercising 10 to 15 hours a week to more around 5 to 6 hours. Still a lot, but not nearly as much.

My goals for 2021 are to continue this reading habit while trying to take in and remember more of what I have read.

I can't believe it has taken me over 35 years to get to this point, but I am here now! Let’s hope my new habit continues.

Summary of changes I made in 2020:

  • Read several books at the same time, both fiction and non-fiction.
  • Stop reading a book if I am not enjoying it. Switch to another.
  • Join a local library (and download its e-book reader!).
  • Write in the margin of books and highlight passages.
  • Write book summaries.
  • Switch off notifications on all my apps (bar texts from my family).
  • Make it harder to access social media.
  • Make a habit of taking a book with me everywhere, even if I won't have time to read it.

2021 and 2022 update

I read or listened to 62 books in 2021 using the same technique. 2022 started a bit slower primarily because of extra stress of starting a new role at Waybridge, but I have managed to pick things up in the final quarter of the year.